There’s an unusual phenomenon trending throughout Europe: a war on Christmas. Luckily, for those of us in the Western Hemisphere, European filmmakers are documenting the whole thing. Dick Maas’ latest thriller, Saint, follows a group of Amsterdam citizens as they witness the once-a-generation return of a vengeful Saint Nicolas. Generally, during the holidays we have no problem letting a stranger into our home to leave some gifts, but Maas took the next (slightly demented) logical step and asked, what if, instead of a jolly fat man, it was an evil spirit hell bent on snatching bodies? Needless to say, the film is destined to be a cult holiday favorite. We recently had a chance to speak with the writer/director at the TriBeca Film Festival about his films and why making innocent things evil is so much fun.
You developed this story for nearly a decade. How did it evolve from the initial concept?
Let me see. Let me start out saying, the idea was to make Santa Clause of St. Nicholas into an evil person and what I didn’t want to do was what you see in a lot of Santa Claus movies in the States where you have a weird guy who puts on a red suit and takes peoples presents. I didn’t want to go that way and I didn’t want to make an ordinary slasher serial killer movie. It took me a long time to find a good structure that would add an epic feel to the movie and to make it not only a slasher movie but one with real humor in it. I didn’t want to make a satire. So I had to find a structure for that.
And what structure was that?
The one that’s in the movie. Before I had several concepts that could’ve gone a lot of ways. I wanted to start with a made-up legend, I made the legend up of St. Nicholas in the 14th century. But for instance we had a version where he would appear if you played the St. Nicholas song in reverse. That was more like the concept of the movie Candyman and it didn’t really work for us so we went another way. And in another version, the person who played the cop and had his family killed was the main character. You would follow him from the mental institution and he escaped and he was going after him and no one believed him. And I wanted to have an older main person but I needed someone younger too so I settled on the boy.
What made you want to settle on the younger person? The commercial value?
Yeah, it was that and it’s more the audience that can identify with him. With a younger person, they’re more innocent than an old guy and would’ve made it difficult for me to have personally identified with them, but combining the two, I think that works.
When you were filming what was the hardest part about the production?
It was difficult because we shot during one of the coldest winters in Amsterdam. We started in February 2010 and it was minus 20 in the night and we shot at night on the roofs. We started with the plates on the roof and it was not like a second unit shoot on the roof. It was a big unit because we had lots of elements we had to control like the snow and difficult camera movements. And we had to light the whole city and the only thing missing was the guy on the horse. For the first few weeks we did that and it was so cold. And sometimes we had real snow from the sky and most of it in the film was put in digitally. But working at night on the rooftops in Amsterdam, we built small ports in the studio but a lot of it was on real rooftops.
I think that shows through in the film. Amsterdam comes to life and almost becomes a character itself.
I tried to get it out and we worked really hard to get the scope of the city in the film.
On the other side of the coin, was anything really easy?
The easy parts of two people talking. There are these sayings like don’t work with animals, don’t work on the water, and we had all of that. Everything. And I know from one of my previous movies like Amsterdamned that was filmed a lot on the water 25 years ago and I know its very difficult to shoot on the water in the canals. So now I was doing it all over again. Everything was difficult but luckily we had done that before. The only thing we had not done before was work with a running horse. Because the chase scene and many other scenes, almost every time is a real horse. Of course we had some push shots where we had a 3D digital horse, if I had the choice I would’ve done more 3D because you can control it much better but we didn’t have the budget so we did it with the real horse. But we did some things that had never been done, like put it on a treadmill in front of a green screen. I’ve never seen it and I did some research on how to shoot horses and to blend them in a digital environment and I could not find any examples. So we built this scaffolding, 6m x 50m long, against green screen and let the horse run along it. We built some smaller rooftops to get the movement that he was doing. And that was pretty impressive because it had never been done before and was a bit dangerous. One of the horses immediately sprained. We had good people working with horses but they had never done this before so it was a first for everyone. The nice thing was that it looked really good on the screen.
You’ve said you enjoy taking things generally considered good/nice and turning them into something evil. What inspired you to do this? What else would you turn evil?
I’ve got one idea for another screenplay that’s about the robot vacuum cleaners that go through your house and cleans everything but this one cleans the people. But I don’t know if I’m going to make that movie (laughs). But the thing to think about, it’s a well known concept in horror, you have the Car and Carrie and I’ve played with that concept twice first with an elevator. And I think people can identify very quickly with a well known object and they never think it could be evil. And with an iconic figure like St Nicholas, nobody ever thought the guy could be bad. And it’s fun to try that out.
The film has received many complaints about the subject matter in Holland prior to its record breaking home theatrical run. Has that increased following the global exposure or been resolved? What were they so upset about?
It started already when we started shooting, all over Belgium, I had never heard of them but they’re real, St. Nick organizations, these groups protect the celebrations because in Holland it’s the biggest iconic figure, he’s bigger than the queen. Nobody can touch St. Nick. So they began protesting the movie and went on TV programs and I was confronted on a Belgian television program. And they tried to keep the image sacred for the kids. But my intention was to never take the image/festivities from the children because it is a celebration and the kids get presents, etc. I didn’t want to touch that, but if people are careful and children don’t have to be confronted with an evil Santa because it’s an over 16 movie and they don’t show the trailers during certain times and not before. But then came the posters and we had this wonderful poster made and there was the fellow director who I know very well who was protesting the poster but it’s a dark figure on the horse. And the poster will be all over Amsterdam and it was a few weeks before the annual celebration. And he was protesting that and organizing the movement and he went to the advertising commission that you can protest bad advertisements and he went to that but he lost. Nobody saw the problem with putting up a poster because my opinion was that parents are lying to the children when they say there’s a man on the roof who puts presents in the chimney. If they are confronted with a poster on the street they can easily make something up. It’s the parents who should protect the children.
Do you think the controversy helped the film at the box office?
Oh yes, sure. I was very happy. Of course with TV programs, I don’t think there was ever a greater place for the run of a very, very good Dutch movie. I had never seen such notices for a movie. Everyone knew the movie was coming out.
You leave the film very open ended. Are there plans for a sequel?
There were plans, a very sort of scripted outline if we want to make the sequel but I think it depends on how it plays abroad. It did very well in Holland but there’s not a certain amount where I have to say I have to do a sequel but if it does well here in the States or anywhere and there’s demand for it then I will.
Your films have been all over the place, from comedy to thrillers to music videos – why and how do you approach each genre differently?
When I started out as a filmmaker I just wanted to entertain people and I like many different things. I like horror, thrillers and comedies and as long as there are good stories in it and they’re meant to entertain people. I’m not making movies like a lot of people in Holland who are making movies for themselves. They’re sort of little or no story. I like the American way of storytelling. In Holland, a lot of people are trying the European way and for me those are boring movies. So I like to entertain and I like to do all the genres and I mix them sometimes, the comedy goes into the thriller and the other way around.
When you say “the American way to make movies” do you mean bigger/more action or is there something in the story?
Basically it doesn’t have to be a big movie but as long as the story is told and I’m a bit old fashioned maybe in that regard. I’m from the school that everything has to have a purpose or else why put it in? So I really like the structure, I’m more talking about the way stories are structured than the scope of the movie. My next movie is a small thriller but I think the structure is good but its not like a very big action piece.
Rare Exports is a Finnish film dealing with an evil St. Nick. Is something wrong with Christmas in Europe? Were you aware of the other film being made at the same time?
I heard about it I think when I was shooting. I still haven’t seen it. I have it at home. People were like twittering about it and on the internet and said it looked like that movie and I said what movie? And well, it’s a trend.
So it’s just a coincidence and nothing is wrong with Christmas in Europe?
Well, no, I don’t think I want to say it has anything to do with the sex scandals in the Catholic Church and the bishops and everything. But of course this has nothing to do with that movie or my movie.
Quiz is your next film labeled in production, what can you tell us about that?
Yeah, we’re aiming on a shoot in July, August, September and we’re casting right now depending on the availability .
This is your first time at TriBeca. Was this festival something you were aiming for and what does it mean to have a film here?
I don’t know, I’m experiencing it right now. Of course I knew about it and when it was selected, I never thought a movie like this could be in this festival. I didn’t really know what kind of movies were playing here. I thought it was more high brow or they don’t take movies like mine that get shown here. On one hand I was surprised they liked the movie so much and of course, I don’t know the audience but it’s well structured in the categories and people don’t know what to expect and I hope they don’t expect too much horror and gore because then I have made the wrong movie. And this is sort of in between.